For this article to work we all need to suspend disbelief and all work on the assumption that in real terms Stormont is ineffective, worthless and has no real positive day to day impact on our lives. That whoever is First Minister has no significance other than symbolism and bragging rights, and that we can all get through the intense period of gloating and recrimination if Sinn Fein emerge the biggest party in May. Do you think we can do that for the duration of reading this article? I can.
That’s what pro union voters are going to need to do for the May election. They need to decide whether or not a Sinn Fein First Minister and enduring a resulting period of intense and unsubtle gloating is the lesser of two evils. That’s a hell of a tall order when that outcome can still be avoided. The other evil is to feel obliged to vote in a manner that rewards, sustains and even encourages the party that more than any other has put unionist voters in this position in the first place.
I can’t tell pro union voters how to think, vote or act. Nor is it really my problem as – thanks to the outworkings of DUP policy of reducing the number of seats per constituency – I’ll be voting in a constituency now down to one unionist seat from two safe ones in 2016. But we need to be able to recognise the source of unionism’s current difficulties (exaggerated as they may be by some media and academic voices) before we can figure out how to solve them
I’ve said before that I believe Peter Robinson in 2015 left behind a union at the safest since partition. We had an established peace, a Republican movement working the institutions of state, a strengthened north-south relationship, and opinion polls consistently stating support for Irish unity at an all-time low. Robinson had also cleared old reactionary Paisleyites like Sammy Wilson and Paisley Junior a plane ride away from Stormont and managed to attract more mainstream, younger, voter friendly individuals into important positions in both party and government. And yes, there were (and are) good, decent, civic minded people in the DUP Assembly party. But they have lost their battle for the souls of both the party and unionism and simply can’t win them back under the DUP guise.
We can go back the whole 51 years of the existence of the DUP to identify times and events where the DUP under Ian Paisley caused stress and damage to the cause and reputation of unionism, and thus to the union itself. But we don’t need to. Below is a list of ten of the pivotal but characteristic miscalculations the party has made since the beginning of the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Some were tactical to benefit the party, some were miscalculations, and some were the simple thranness of what remains ultimately what it always was – a party of destructive opposition.
The ten I’d highlight are:
1.Refusal to participate in the GFA negotiations. Thus leaving unionism in a numerical minority at the table and diminishing its negotiating strength.
- Campaigning against the agreement and vilifying those unionists who were attempting to sell its benefits to the broader community. Thus undermining the position and perception of unionism once the agreement was approved, as it was always going to be.
- Accepting seats at the Executive table but insisting on operating autonomously from the rest of the Executive. Again weakening the position of unionism at the table when programmes for government and executive dynamics were being established.
- Pushing to change the procedure for electing OFMDFM away from largest designation to largest party. A tactic designed to do nothing but force unionist voters into voting DUP for no reason other than to avoid the embarrassment of having Martin McGuinness as the slightly more joint of the two joint positions (while in the meantime being the only party to perpetuate the fallacy that FM was in some way the senior of two equal offices). This looks like blowing up in their faces in May but never forget its entirely self-inflicted.
- Being the only party to push for a reduction of seats to ninety according to a former DUP SPAD last week. This tactic – again targeted at the UUP – saw unionism lose sixteen of the eighteen removed seats, 29% of unionist seats and its majority in Stormont for the first time in its existence. I think its fair to say the political and psychological optics of that change far outweighs the allocation of the slightly more completely equal First Minister positions. Entirely self-inflicted and irreversible.
- An appalling and unsustainable attitude to social issues – primarily same sex marriage but also on the admittedly more challenging issue of abortion reform – that confused, challenged and ultimately alienated a vast swathe of pro-union people who – as well as not being unable to understand how two gay people being married was any sort of threat to anyone else but was simply a basic human desire and right – believe in the values of the secular, accepting British state and who believed the same rights should apply to all UK subjects.
- Playing an active part in a Brexit campaign that had no evident benefits to any element of the community here in Northern Ireland, while at no point articulating any potential improvements in our lifestyle. Nelson McCausland’s infamous comment about not caring about the consequences so long as we left was clumsy, possibly unintentional and may well even have got him into internal hot water. But they very publicly demonstrated how little thought had underpinned their continuation of their founder’s irrational approach to Europe.
- Failure to comprehend how our withdrawal from the EU could harden attitudes among Catholics (not necessarily nationalists) in border areas whose daily life and livelihood would be damaged. Then the failure to see how this could be cynically exploited by a Sinn Fein suddenly masquerading as good, committed Europeans.
- Paul Givan’s childish, spiteful and unsustainable removal of the tiny LIOFA grant that gave Sinn Fein a much needed and easily magnified non RHI justification for staying out of the Executive for three years. No benefit to the DUP or unionism from that debacle, but the placing of Irish Language legislation right at the centre of political debate. An issue that had been of little to no importance at Stormont up to that point now capable of being presented as a symbol of unionist discrimination. Again self-inflicted and unnecessary.
- Abject failure to leverage anything of political value from the unique position they occupied post the 2017 General Election. Using their votes instead to humiliate and undermine Theresa May in her efforts to minimise the damage to the union but instead very publicly and enthusiastically threw their lot on with Boris Johnson. BORIS JOHNSON!!!! Definitely not someone you want holding your coat in a fight.
I could go on. Those are the big issues and errors, But domestically we saw them permit Sammy Wilson and likeminded party representatives to publicly deride and ignore Executive policy on covid restrictions repeatedly for no reason other than to be contrary. Incredible behaviour that again confused and ultimately alienated pro union people from political unionism when it could least afford it. Again predominantly the young. No benefit and self-inflicted.
None of this should have come as any surprise to anyone who has observed the DUP over the past five decades. Republicanism was never the true enemy of Ian Paisley. His sights were always more firmly aimed at the UUP (followed by the English and of course the Pope) and it was no surprise that the minute his party supplanted the real foe he went straight into meaningful negotiations with – not Gerry Fitt, John Hume or Seamus Mallon – Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. St Andrews may have been the fulfilment of the DUP founder’s personal ambition, but – like everything he achieved – it was achieved to the detriment of unionism and the union. Because there was no goal other than the achievement of being the leader of unionism. Nearly fifteen years after his political demise can we honestly say anything has changed? I can’t.
So pro union voters really have a monumental decision to make in May. It’s not an easy one. The UUP is – I believe – genuine in its stated aim to provide a pluralist, inclusive society, but it’s still very much finding its feet. I think Doug Beattie is doing okay and in bringing in people like Kyle, Corr, McCarthy et al has given a political home to good people where they can maybe make a difference. But there’s an awful lot of work to be done to galvanise a party that had become so moribund over such a long period. He needs to identify where people are most alienated by the DUP and find strong, attractive candidates for those areas. A very tall order for May
Frankly, Alliance should be out of sight by now, and as I’ve said before, I should be a nailed-on Alliance supporter by now. But as far as I can see it has to date utterly failed to even try to speak to or for the politically homeless, disenchanted unionist it needs to accommodate in its main target constituencies. Nor is there much evidence it wants to do so. That’s a shame because if we look at strongly pro-union constituencies we see a much higher propensity of voters to step outside the tribe and to vote for Alliance or the Greens at council level.
So its not an easy one for pro union voters. I can’t advise how to vote as we all have different priorities and sensitivities. But no matter what we do, this is the time for deep reflection and a leap of faith. Another five years of the same relentless failure to capture the public and political mood and the reputation and position of the pro union community could be damaged beyond repair.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.